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Google and Carnegie Mellon University collaborate to explore GigaPixel imaging 

Carnegie Mellon University said Wednesday it is collaborating with Internet search engine giant Google to let people explore, in great detail, places around the world -- such as a Guatemalan open air market, a castle in Dublin or even exhibits at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh -- without leaving home.

"We all know that imagery is compelling," said Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor in the school of computer science's Robotics Institute. "Imagery is something that we can really use to learn about the world in a fundamental way. But it also crosses boundaries."

Using a robotic device and free software, developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and NASA scientists, people with standard hand-held digital cameras can create panoramas with enough detail that they can be mined for data or just enjoyed for their clarity. The images are built into the newest version of Google Earth, a mapping program that lets people view Earth through satellite imagery and aerial photographs.

The principle behind the technology is the same as that used by vacationers who snap several pictures of sweeping views, each time slightly moving the camera. The resulting photos are pieced together to create a panorama.

Called GigaPans -- for gigapixel (billions of pixels) panoramas -- the images consist of hundreds of pictures taken by a digital camera on its highest zoom setting and "stitched" together. The result is a detailed image that can be displayed on a computer and zoomed in on -- or explored -- to find otherwise hidden details, such as the writing on signs or patterns on butterfly wings.

The key to GigaPan comes from a $300 camera system developed for Carnegie Mellon by Charmed Labs in Austin, Texas. The camera system is basically a small robot that holds a digital camera and over several minutes moves it methodically, automatically taking the pictures needed to make a GigaPan.

Carnegie Mellon software pieces the images together. Because they are so detailed, GigaPans take up a lot of room on a computer's memory, so the university will provide server space to store them. The images will be made public for anyone to explore.

"Our goal is to get this out to as many people as we can," said Randy Sargent, senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon West in Moffett Field, Calif.

Uses for GigaPans are endless, Nourbakhsh said. Ecologists could take GigaPans of the environment and use the level of detail they provide to identify plants and animals. Engineers could take GigaPans of construction sites and examine them to be sure buildings are being assembled properly. The Pennsylvania Board of Tourism is using GigaPans to let people virtually explore Civil War sites.

Read more: CMU, Google collaborate on robotic camera - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review MORE >

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